‘Random acts of violence, senseless acts of cruelty’. There are no shortage of examples in the news; from random killings or assaults on people in the wrong place at the wrong time, to random acts of vandalism – trashing cars for fun, damaging property for the hell of it… During Covid times – coughing in someone’s face in the street, verbally abusing medics just trying to get on with their job. And in the news, this past week – a mystery tree-feller under cover of darkness, chopping down dozens of healthy, mature trees in and around Weybridge – for no obvious reason – beautiful trees in blossom, reduced to stumps. It’s hard not to feel despondent on reading such stories … But there’s another phrase which turns this on its head, “Random acts of kindness, senseless acts of beauty” and has inspired countless (often spontaneous) acts of generosity towards strangers. It’s thought that the peace activist and writer Anne Herbert first coined the term – scribbling the words down on a place mat, in a Californian restaurant in 1982 – at the time of the Persian Gulf war, in response to the news headlines. In 1993 Herbert wrote the book “Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty” and the Random Acts of kindness Foundation was set up in 1995, with a website of stories to inspire kindness https://www.randomactsofkindness.org/
Whilst cynics may mock, the enthusiasm for random acts of kindness has spread across the world – impacting on education, businesses, faith groups, and local communities. Some acts of kindness are natural responses which we do without thinking: helping someone who’s fallen, letting a driver pull out from a side road. Others are premeditated: giving an umbrella to a stranger in a downpour of rain, leaving spare coins at the parking meter. We perform a kind act, not knowing if the person who will benefit, deserves it. We pay the bill for someone behind us at the coffee shop – they might be a scoundrel – no matter – we do it in good faith! This builds on a tradition in working-class cafés of Naples; Caffè sospeso – “suspended coffee” – a person pays for two coffees, but drinks only one; the second is left until someone asks if a sospeso is available. Generous acts, when we know nothing about the character of the person who will benefit, come less naturally than towards those we deem ‘deserving’ – but the Gospels are full of references of undeserved acts of kindness; God making the “sun to shine on the righteous and unrighteous”, waifs and strays rounded up and invited to the banquet, the labourers who work for just 1 hour, getting as much money as labourers who work all day… Generosity for the sake of it – unexpected, unmerited … though of course, we need to use our common sense. If we start showering gifts on total strangers or turning up too often at our neighbour’s door with cake – we may just freak them out!
It’s even harder in Covid times; we don’t want ‘random acts of kindness’ to turn into ‘super- spreader’ events! Sadly, Covid has made us more wary of talking to strangers in the street – yet acts of kindness are needed more than ever. And we’ve seen many examples during the pandemic; people shopping for neighbours, making up food parcels, leaving small gifts and uplifting messages in public places for strangers to find. I’ve been touched by small acts of kindness myself. Last November, after a challenging day, I went for a walk in the nearby recreation ground. A typical winter day – no flowers to lift my spirits. But pegged to a fence, in a see-through bag, I spied this little knitted fairy:
The label reads: “You have found me and I am yours to keep . Please share your find on our Facebook page ‘Find Farncombe Fairies’ NB: We have all been sprayed with antibacterial spray before being placed for you to find.” I brought the fairy home and she sits pride of place on top of my computer, covering my webcam – when not in use! The other morning, from my bedroom window, I spotted an older woman whom I presume is Farncombe’s ‘fairy godmother’. Before anyone was about – she walked up to the big oak tree which frames our view and pegged a plastic bag to its lower branch. I didn’t see who claimed the fairy later that day, but I hope it cheered them, as much as it did me. A knitted fairy won’t save the world, but it can brighten a blue day!
The concept of kindness is as old as humanity – praised by the emperor Marcus Aurelius as ‘mankind’s greatest delight’. It’s at the heart of most religions: loving kindness -‘metta’ in Buddhism; in Judaism ‘mitzvah‘ – an act of kindness; in Christianity – ‘caritas’ – charity; Islam teaches, ‘Allah is kind and loves kindness in all matters’; for Hindus – Dāna – generosity – is an important part of one’s religious duty. But in the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes dismissed kindness as a psychological absurdity and claimed that humans are selfish beasts who care nothing for others. Ever since kindness has tended to be dismissed as sentimental, mawkish – the soft option. Thankfully, it’s making a come-back. In recent years, a plethora of books and research on neuroscience, remind us what the sages of old tell us; kindness is a natural human attribute, linked to happiness and well-being – crucial for the survival of our species. Of course, random acts of kindness on their own, are not enough to change the world. We also need deliberate, intentional planned acts of kindness on a larger scale – which engage with politics, health-care, education and social policy – initiatives that see what the real needs are, and respond effectively. We need to address the root causes of poverty, not just make up food parcels. And random acts of kindness may sometimes be too random to do any good, if foisted on reluctant others by well-meaning folk – as in the proverbial joke of the do-gooder who compels a blind person across a road he’s just crossed! But small acts of kindness, done sensitively, can be the icing on the cake – going above and beyond what’s ‘necessary’ – allowing for an element of serendipity.
It’s not just random acts of kindness that impact the world for good, but also ‘senseless acts of beauty’. After the suicide bombings in Brussels in 2016, a couple of young men handed out roses in the streets. This gesture did not bring back the dead or heal the injured – it could be dismissed as a pointless gesture – but it was an act of defiant beauty in the face of ugliness. Why else do we place flowers at the scenes of murder, or tragic accidents? For every ugly act, flowers remind us there is still beauty in the world. For every random act of violence – we can offer a gesture of kindness; for every senseless act of cruelty – a senseless act of beauty, helping to restore balance to the world. When it comes to ‘senseless acts of beauty’, Nature is the most prodigious giver – whether humans appreciate her gifts or not. A flower – unless it’s a pollinator for bees – may not be ‘useful’ – but its beauty adds to the world. At the start of the pandemic during the first lockdown, never had the flowers and blossoms, seemed so beautiful or welcome. A year on, blossoms and daffodils once more proclaim hope and possibility – against the odds. Nature constantly throws her beauty at us – whether we are deserving or not. And sometimes we can give her a helping hand. When Keith Owen, a millionaire businessman, died in 2013 – he left £2.3 million to his hometown – Sidmouth in Devon – for the sole purpose of planting flowers and daffodils. Some might consider this a waste. Surely this money could be put to better use in hospitals, schools, youth clubs? But perhaps this man knew the healing potential of nature. 5 years on, the flowers planted with his money, provide a riot of colour across the region.
We need beauty as well as good deeds… In lockdown, florists have been leaving flower arrangements in public locations for people to find, and giving away unsold blooms to NHS workers, or retirement homes … And it’s not just flowers; musicians have sung and played from balconies and on streets, people have displayed works of art in their windows, there have been acts of ‘positive vandalism’ – ‘yarn-bombing’ of lampposts, ‘flower-bombing’ on grass verges, colourful murals that offer cheer. “Beauty will save the world” – so claims Prince Lev Nikolyaevich Myshkin, the protagonist of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel ‘The Idiot’. Some might dismiss this as an idiotic saying. In his Nobel Laureate speech, fellow Russian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn asked: “What sort of a statement is that?… When in bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything?” But I think there’s truth in it. Beauty has certainly ‘saved’ me. During dark times, the sight of a flower or a tree in blossom, a work of art, a few lines of poetry, snatches of music that touch the soul, have roused me back to life – alongside human acts of kindness.
We should do kind and beautiful acts without expecting reward or recognition, as it says in the Gospels: “to not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” But sometimes what goes around, comes around in unexpected ways. As the book of Proverbs says: ‘Cast your bread upon the waters and after many days you will find it again’. And let’s never underestimate the power of kindness. In one of my favourite scenes from the film trilogy of Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’, Gandalf the Grey wizard, says: “Saruman (the white wizard) believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love.” Lady Galadriel quizzes Gandalf – ‘why the Halfling?’ Referring to Bilbo the hobbit, she’s asking: what good can he do – small as he is? Gandalf replies “Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.” The wizard, despite his great magic has need of a humble hobbit – with his big heart. Every time we turn on the news and feel despair about the world – not just during Covid but after Covid – let us remember what will keep the darkness at bay are random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty – from ‘halflings’ such as ourselves. Let us live to make it so.
In faith and hope, Sheena